The Crown Commercial Service that oversees how the UK public sector buys stuff has apparently granted an eight-month stay of execution to the Commodity IT Hardware & Software (CITHS) framework, through which Blighty's technology supply deals are brokered.
According to its original tender published in the Official Journal of the European Union – where all public-sector business has to be touted – CITHS was launched on 1 March, 2010, as a three-and-a-half-year legal agreement with an option to extend it by six months.
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The Crown Commercial Service (CCS), a professional buying group acting on behalf of the Cabinet Office, organises the framework and triggered the six-month extension late last summer because its successor, the IT Products, Associated Software and Services (IT PASS) framework, was not ready to go live. And as the CITHS expiry date looms, IT PASS has yet to reach its tendering stage.
Multiple suppliers contacted by El Chan told us that CCS has pushed the shutdown of CITHS to October to accommodate its dilly dallying.
"CCS has applied for and been granted an extraordinary extension," said a well-placed IT distribution channel source. "This is the first time I can remember this [type of extension] happening."
IT PASS was due to be in place by September, but a Prior Information Notice (PIN) was only issued last month, along with PINs for two associated frameworks. A PIN is simply a warning that a contract, or similar, is about to be advertised.
Suppliers accepted into the IT PASS system, via a tendering process, will be able to bid on UK public-sector tech contracts valued between £4bn to £6bn over its lifetime; the scheme was due to be up and running by mid-March – slap bang in the middle of the busy public-sector year-end.
But one company reckons negative feedback on the timing encouraged CCS to postpone its launch to April Fool's Day – yes, really – meaning that without the CITHS extension, there would have been no official vehicle for public-sector buyers to flush year-end budgets.
Further slippage on the timing of the IT PASS tendering stage is, of course, not impossible, and lest we forget CCS has form in this respect. Contracts are not expected to be awarded until the summer.
"CCS should have considered this a long time ago. They are doing this [extension] now because they have no alternatives," said a supplier.
There is an alternative to CITHS in the form of the IT Hardware & Associated Services (ITH&S) agreement that started in 2012, but it was too prescriptive for buyers and carried a limited set of SKUs. Most in the public sector don't use it.
The PIN for IT Pass split the framework into four lots: volume hardware and associated services; packaged software and services; information assurance devices; and end-user computing. The framework is set to run for three years with an option to extend it by another twelve months.
How did IT PASS end up stalling?
Sources suggested the delays to the rollout of CITHS's successor were caused by understaffing at CCS at a time when it is juggling multiple frameworks and, er, managing expectations from the Treasury.
"There are too many cooks and too much intervention from Cabinet Office," said a contact. "Liam Maxwell [government CTO] and Bill Crothers [exec director for procurement] have the power of veto."
The Cabinet Office isn't afraid to nix tendering processes: the £1bn Application Development Delivery Support Services deal was scrapped in 2012, and last year the Ministry of Justice procurement pipeline was sent back to the drawing board.
On both occasions, suppliers spent a shedload of cash working on tenders for weeks, only for that effort to be rendered obsolete.
In December, Cabinet Office extended the life of the Software Applications Solutions framework to September – though, unlike CITHS, this extension required no special measures as it was outlined in the original Official Journal of the European Union.
The PIN for a replacement programme, Software Solutions, was the second of three in December. Software Solutions contracts cover enterprise resource planning; finance and accounting; HR; customer relationship management; document management; and data management.
Sprint ii, yet another large agreement for cross-public-sector deals, is set to expire on 15 March. This encompasses commodity hardware and software purchased in big volumes and the framework involves a single supplier, SCC.
The PIN for its replacement, the Transactional IT Product Solution, was also published last month, and the framework is being specified by CCS with some help from the channel. The British government has yet to determine if it is looking for one supplier again, or a catalogue of suppliers similar to an Amazon-style marketplace, for Sprint ii.
"This is not just about buying cheaply, but decreasing the costs of public-sector procurement and standardising the tail-end of procurement," said one of our supplier sources.
CCS and the Cabinet Office have yet to respond to questions sent to them this morning. ®